From the high-tech corridors of Virginia to the inner-city churches of Los Angeles, you can't attend a George W. Bush campaign event without seeing the big blue banner hailing the Texan as a "reformer with results." After watching rival John McCain score with his outsider message early on, Bush has done what all enterprising pols do under duress: He has stolen his foe's best lines.
George W. is mouthing the words, but can he back them up? Bottom line: Yes--if you buy Bush's definition of reform. Under Bush's watch, Texas welfare rolls have plummeted and student test scores, particularly among minorities, have improved. Businesses have won regulatory relief and a set of shields to ward off huge liability awards. While the governor's ambitious overhaul of an antiquated tax system was killed by corporate lobbyists, he delivered billions in tax cuts. It adds up to "a strong record of accomplishment," says Massachusetts Governor Paul Celluci, "far stronger than Senator McCain's."
TEXAS WALTZ. Bush's new campaign ads are hitting the reform theme hard. "While Washington politicians deadlocked, I delivered a patients' bill of rights," Bush boasts in one.
Reality is more complex. In 1995, a close Bush ally, GOP State Senator David Sibley of Waco, pushed for passage of a "Patient Protection Act" to give enrollees in managed-care plans more leverage against HMOs. Under pressure from industry lobbyists, Bush vetoed the bill, saying it would be burdensome and give a "competitive advantage" to "special interests" (two HMOs were to be exempted from the law).
But the veto stirred an outcry from consumer groups and doctors. So Bush directed his then-insurance commissioner, Elton Bomer, to draft new rules. "He called me into his office and said: `I'd like to reconstruct the good elements of this bill,"' recalls Bomer, now Texas Secretary of State. A month later, the Insurance Commission proposed a reform package that included portable health-care benefits for job-switchers and a ban on insurers giving financial incentives to providers who limit medically necessary care.
In 1997, Bush signed laws that codified Bomer's measures. But he declined to approve a companion proposal granting patients the right to sue HMOs after an independent review. The governor said he worried about a wave of lawsuits. Actually, facing a near-certain veto override, Bush decided not to fight. The right to sue became law without his signature.
"GOT RESULTS." The law made Texas a leader in HMO reform. "I've got to hand it to him," says Hugo Berlanga, a liberal Democrat and former chairman of the Texas House Public Health Committee. "He worked through it methodically, and we got results." Others are less generous. "It's disingenuous for [Bush] to claim credit," says Reggie James, Southwest regional director for Consumers Union. "He saw a parade and tried to get in front of it."
Critics see Bush as a faux reformer who reflexively favors his corporate donors and resists any changes that diminish the influence of campaign cash. And the flip side of his reforms are more pollution, more injured workers, more child poverty. "What he calls reform benefited a small group of economic interests," says Craig McDonald of Citizens for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group based in Austin.
While the debate rages, Bush's current media barrage may be paying off. A Feb. 20-21 poll for CNN and USA Today found that 61% of GOP voters now think Bush is a reformer, vs. 53% for McCain. That may help explain the Texan's growing strength with rank-and-file Republicans--and the growing frustration of John McCain.